PLAYING in the Scottish Communities League Cup final is a priority for pretty much every Hearts player right now.
For a youngster only recently established at first-team level, a showpiece occasion at Hampden Park holds even more appeal. It is understandable, then, that some should find their minds wandering ahead to March 17.
Fraser Mullen admits the cup final against St Mirren in four weeks’ time is difficult to ignore, even though Hearts have important league matches beforehand. The teenage full-back was due to make only his sixth senior appearance against Kilmarnock this afternoon, but is already thinking ahead to what may await him and his youth academy colleagues.
“I have only played a few games and hopefully I can keep my place in the team,” he said. “The League Cup final is in the back of everybody’s mind and the goal and the target is to be in the starting 11 for that match. It is hard not to think about the cup final but you have to try and focus on the league games.
“Our next one is against Kilmarnock and we need to make sure we are ready for that. Every time you get a chance you just have to do well and be in the team for the following week.”
Barring injury or suspension, Mullen is expected to remain at right-back for the foreseeable future. Jamie Hamill is back training following a long-term knee ligament injury, but, in the words of the Hearts manager John McGlynn, he would be “pushing it” to be fit and ready for the final. Darren Barr and Dylan McGowan are the only other viable alternatives for the right-back berth, but, as primary centre-backs, neither can claim the specialist qualities Mullen can in his favoured role.
The teenager returned to the Hearts first team after an absence of 12 months in last month’s League Cup semi-final and has been an ever-present since. “I was very nervous for the game against Inverness, but once I was on the park I was fine, especially as I am playing with lots of the younger players that I have played alongside in the under-17s and under-19s. We all know each other’s game inside out and we are all good mates.
“If you look about the park and you see your pals and friendly faces then that also helps you settle into matches. We finished runners-up in the league with the under-19s two years in a row so we were a decent side.
“I played against Auchinleck Talbot in the early rounds of the Scottish Cup last season [his only first-team outing until last month]. If I was to play in the League Cup final it would be much bigger and a lot more special as we would be trying to win the trophy. I was at the game when Hearts beat Hibs in the Scottish Cup final last May and it was a great experience to see the boys lift the cup so hopefully I can get the chance to try and emulate that team.”
Mullen believes winning the cup this year would be a fitting tribute to captain Marius Zaliukas, who is out for the rest of the season through injury and is suspended for the final in any case.
“It is a big blow to lose Marius because he is such an influential player on the park and he will be sadly missed.
“Marius is a vocal player and he helps you and talks you through the game and he helps ease your nerves before the game. He is our leader and our captain and he is a top defender. If you are not doing something right he will not be slow in letting you know, but he always tries to help and encourage you on the park.
“The boys would love to win the League Cup for Marius and his absence will inspire us to try and do that as he has been such a big player for this club throughout the years. I am sure Marius will want to still be in and around the dressing-room dishing out advice before the cup final as that is the kind of guy that he is.
“He has been here for a few years and the Hearts fans just love him so it would be great to win the League Cup for him. There are other guys like Andy Webster, too, who are just as influential as Marius. They both do the same job. Andy acts like a captain on the park and talks you through it all.”